Bridge Over Troubled Water: Volunteers vs. Paid Staff

In the nonprofit sector, there is often a divide in expectations between full time staff and volunteers.  Employees feel as if volunteers are fleeting, coming and going without any real reliability, and in several instances providing volunteer work that will need redone.  Volunteers don’t often get enough signs of appreciation, and feel like amateurs thrown into an unfamiliar professional setting. In several instances, abbreviations and technical terminology can lead volunteers astray while busy staff members can’t (or don’t) take the time to help them properly.

There is an obvious divide here, and volunteer managers need to bridge the gap as much as possible.  It often seems like an insurmountable task, appeasing both busy staff members and volunteers seeking out more than data entry projects. But, both the staff and volunteers rely on the volunteer manager(s) to provide the best people for the best jobs. 

In my opinion, bridging the gap between staff and volunteers almost always starts with the staff.  They need to understand that providing a little training to the volunteers may take time in the short term, but will be worth it in the long run.  Most volunteers are either up front about their commitment and the time they foresee donating, but if they don’t like their tasks or feel underappreciated, it only makes sense that they wouldn’t return.  Acquaint the staff with the mission and goals of the nonprofit, and show the staff how volunteers can be incorporated into the bigger picture. 

With the economy as it stands, volunteers with great resumes and developed skillsets are looking to stay busy while on their job search.  This is a perfect opportunity for nonprofits to snatch up valuable unpaid personnel.  I’ve worked at several nonprofits, and while there are some short-term volunteers, we also had great people who dedicated 10, 20, even 50 years to the organization.  Let the staff know that you’re pairing them with volunteers who meet their needs, and show them in an organizational chart what role volunteers play.

If from the top down, the staff recognizes the need for volunteers and how they fit in the organization, the next step is to ensure success.  Volunteers need workspace.  They shouldn’t be working far away from the supervising staff member, nor should they be filing all day in back cabinet in a dimly lit room. Allowing the staff to monitor the volunteer avoids incorrect work, and the volunteer feels like they can easily ask for guidance or have a question answered.  Its tough to feel like you’re trusted when you’re sharing a desk with your supervisor, and cramming people into workspaces may decrease productivity.

Provide praise to both staff and volunteers.  Newsletters, blogs, company wide emails, are all great opportunities.  Give staff thank you cards to complete and give to their volunteers, and make sure that everyone knows that its okay to praise, praise, praise.  Volunteers do a great job, but so do staff, and no one ever died from being told that their hard work is appreciated.

Develop a process for concerns and issues, so that all volunteers are treated respectfully, with an unbiased process.  This will allow staff to come to you as well as volunteers.  Never show a preference, which was the single hardest part for me.  My volunteers were literally my little work family.  I assumed responsibility for their actions, often defending and protecting them against an executive staff who questioned the need for day to day volunteers.  Representing staff and volunteers equally can be tricky, but having solid procedures in place will help to be fair.

One strange element I experienced in my years as a volunteer manager was the seemingly unnatural competition between staff and volunteers.  Employees are paid, so they needn’t feel threatened by an unpaid staff member.  But, when the staff sees volunteers receiving kudos, a sense of competition and possible fear of replacement emerges.  That being said, I’ve never seen an organization fire their staff and implement solely volunteers, so I doubt there is a need for the panic.

When it comes to volunteers vs. staff, everyone needs to tone it down a notch, develop a plan, and work together to support the mission.  The goals of the organization are why everyone is there in the first place, right?


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